On August 21, the Libyan opposition forces stormed the capital, Tripoli, and took control of President Ghaddafi’s compound. The war is not over, as Ghaddafi loyalists continue to battle the rebels, and the Transitional National Council (the organization formed to represent the opposition) will need to begin work to fill the power vacuum. The council has a huge task ahead of it to restore order, rebuild the country, create legitimate national institutions and cobble its different factions into some sort of working government. More immediately, the opposition and NATO have to secure Ghaddafi’s chemical weapons and low-enriched uranium stockpiles.
In addition to Ghaddafi’s arsenals of conventional weapons, he is rumored to have stockpiled chemical weapons agents. NATO has pledged to secure the chemical weapons so that Ghaddafi forces cannot use them against the opposition and civilians, but the opposition will also need to be involved. James Corbett, a member of the Center for Research on Globalization, doesn’t believe the Ghaddafi regime would use these weapons in a last ditch effort to hold on to power, since it hasn’t used them yet. However, the greater risk is that, amidst the chaos of Ghaddafi’s overthrow, these stockpiles could be susceptible to theft by smugglers or terrorists. Terrorist organizations, such as Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, have successfully used chemical weapons against civilians in the past.
Also potentially of concern are the hundreds of metric tons of dangerous nuclear and radiological materials at Libya’s Tajoura nuclear reactor facility. Under an agreement between Ghaddafi and the U.S. to dismantle Libya’s nuclear program, all highly-enriched bomb-grade uranium has been removed from Libya, but low-enriched uranium, radioisotopes and spent fuel remain stockpiled at the reactor. Olli Heinonen, former head of U.N. nuclear safeguards inspections worldwide, warns that the remaining nuclear and radiological materials could be used in a dirty bomb, which consists of conventional explosives used to disperse radiation. If the Ghaddafi-employed guards securing the facility flee or NATO simply does not have the manpower to protect the plant, it could become a target for looting.
NATO, the U.S. and the IAEA are working to secure the materials and the U.S. has sent specialists to inform the transition council of how to best protect them, but the power vacuum remains a serious concern. It will take time for a new government in Libya to stabilize the country and the transition process and any future opposition in-fighting could distract the council from providing the necessary security for the chemical agents and nuclear materials. The U.S. and IAEA should stay vigilant and continue to offer their assistance to protect Libya’s dangerous nuclear materials and chemical weapons at this crucial time.